Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA

Image of Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA
Release Date: 
April 6, 2013
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“. . . anyone interested in either political biographies and/or the recent history of America’s foreign policy [should read] this very interesting and informative book.”

Professor Randall Woods delivers an entertaining and fact-filled biography of William Colby from Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer during World War II (1943–1945) through his tenure as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI, 1973–1975).

But this biography provides more than a discussion of Colby’s own professional career within the CIA. Colby is placed among those at the center of the complex process of American foreign policy decisions from World War II through Vietnam. In that way, this book also provides a sweeping overview of United States’ foreign policy assumptions and behaviors over a span of three decades, including summaries of many national security documents only recently available to academic researchers and the general public.

In that context, Colby emerges as a consistent opponent of the narrowest views about how best to pursue America’s fight against the Communist threat. Instead of limiting United States’ political support to staunchly anti-Communist groups within other countries (backed-up, if necessary, by American military force), Colby advocated a “nation-building” approach. That approach argued for broader engagement and cooptation of political groups further out along the political spectrum; including the non-Communist (and even former Communist) social-democratic Left.

Beginning in Italy during the early 1950, Colby’s participation in such policy arguments makes his story of particular interest because debates about the merits of a counterinsurgency “nation-building” approach in Afghanistan, as well as such national security issues as the legitimate boundaries of government secrecy and the appropriate limits on and responsibilities for domestic surveillance continue to this day.

As a contribution to our better understanding of those debates, this book provides two important and inter-related lessons.

The first important lesson is that American foreign policy interests and its international behavior were not rooted in broadly agreed doctrine. Colby’s career illustrates how specific foreign policy actions were often no more than the unintended consequences of shifting political power among competing advocates within the United States government.

Notwithstanding conventional views about the “Communist Threat” during the Cold War period, the specific content of American foreign “policy” varied by place, time, and circumstances.

Indeed, perceptions of threats and how best to respond to them varied widely among individuals and informal groups within the foreign policy “establishment” and the ability to influence decisions and actions overseas waxed and waned from one decision to another.

That lesson is clearly illustrated by the many disagreements about specific policies and particular tactics that Colby had with colleagues—and as often with powerful superiors—during his service as an OSS officer in England and as part of the anti-Nazi underground in France (1944) and Norway (1945).

And again—after a stint at law school and as a lawyer within a large private law practice and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—while stationed in Stockholm from 1951 to 1953 as the CIA’s effective head of its clandestine effort to establish “stay-behind nets” in the event of a Soviet occupation of Scandinavia and of its covert attempt to counter growing Communist Party influence in Italy while stationed in Rome between 1953 and 1958.

Those early assignments and direct involvement in the emerging debates about how best to counter Communist influence in post-WWII Europe clearly shaped Colby’s views and reinforced his place within the CIA’s covert operations group.

When Colby was transferred to Saigon, Vietnam—serving as the CIA’s Deputy-Chief and then Chief of Station from 1959–1962—those experiences informed his views about how best to defeat Communist-led insurgencies there.

For the next decade Colby was at the center of debates about how best to avoid “falling dominoes” in Southeast Asia. Sometimes his views prevailed, but his positions were more often viewed as too unconventional to win the day.

Nonetheless, he continued to rise through the ranks, serving as Chief of the Agency’s entire Far East Division (1962–1967), and after a brief respite in Washington, DC, again in Saigon as deputy to the civilian head of the counter-insurgency program within Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in March 1968.

Eight months later he was promoted again to head the entire “pacification” program with ambassadorial-rank and the title of Deputy Chief of Staff for the inter-agency organization CORDS—i.e., “Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support.”

The discussion of those latter two assignments introduces the reader to CORDS— styled by Professor Woods as “a Peace Corps with Guns”—an organization about which very few readers of this biography will have prior knowledge.

Having served in CORDS during 1967 and 1968, I was particularly interested in that part of the book. But for other readers, an understanding of CORDS’ short history is useful for insight into the on-going debate about whether or not the United States’ should employ a counterinsurgency “winning hearts and minds” approach to defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and, for that matter, in whatever other setting such disagreements might yet surface again in future.

That debate turns on supposed choices between conventional war-fighting, counter-insurgent “nation-building,” or targeted assassination of insurgent leadership. Those same choices were also debated at length during the Vietnam War. And the shifting emphasis on one choice or another—and the ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to integrate them together into a supposed coherent whole is well presented in this book.

Nonetheless, because of Colby’s participation in the founding and subsequent leadership of CORDS, the particular role of the CIA’s own covert and not so covert operations is, perhaps inevitably, overemphasized. As a result, a reader might erroneously think that CORDS was essentially a CIA-run organization when, in fact, that agency’s operations were the least integrated of all programs within CORDS.

Indeed, beyond CORDS senior leadership levels in Saigon, The Agency’s operations continued to be managed almost entirely separate from other CORDS programs in the field; CORDS Province Senior Advisors and their immediate Deputy Senior Advisors did not “manage” CIA staff (whatever might be implied by its organization charts).

References to CORDS personnel being flown around Vietnam by Air America—identified in this book and elsewhere as “the private airline owned and operated by the CIA”—reinforces the view of CORDS as essentially a CIA front. But there were actually two separate “airlines” operated by Air America. One was available to all CORDS staff. But the other was for the exclusive use of CIA personnel and other specific individuals authorized by them to travel on a flight-by-flight basis.

As a result of that overemphasis on CIA covert operations during CORDS’ short life, other non-covert CORDS’ programs directed at “winning hearts and minds” and carried-out by staff of other United States Government agencies are given short-shrift—both in this book and elsewhere. Unfortunately, a comprehensive book about CORDS has yet to be written.

The second lesson is that the personal success of those advocating and entrusted with carrying-out particular foreign policies is not connected to the actual results of those policies. Colby’s successful career was due more to his responsiveness to internal organizational incentives than to the actual success of the policies or actions he supported; many of which were, in any event, unsuccessful.

Professor Woods portrays others’ perception of Colby as combining the romantic persona of the real Lawrence of Arabia and fictional James Bond even as his career exemplified a successful “organization man.”

To an outsider, Colby may have appeared the “swashbuckler,” but the reader of this biography is left with little doubt that he was a loyal staffer motivated as much about the structure of organizational incentives within the CIA as he was about “winning” the argument about the importance of nation-building approaches to the defeat of Communist-led insurgencies in Laos, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia between 1959–1971.

If that had not been the case, it is unlikely that he would have reached the highest levels of the CIA, serving successively as its Executive Director/Comptroller of the CIA (1971–1973) and ultimately as its highly visible Director of Central Intelligence (1973–1975).

Following his involuntary retirement from the CIA on January 30, 1976 as his replacement—George H. W. Bush—was sworn in, Colby once again withdrew from public view. He established a small law firm with two other named partners while also engaged as an international political risk consultant for a Washington, DC consulting firm.

Nonetheless, the sense of mystery surrounding him never disappeared completely and the conclusion of this biography leaves the reader in the midst of his unsolved disappearance—apparently while canoeing alone—on the Chesapeake Bay 17 years ago.

This book has only a few minor flaws. Professor Woods occasionally shifts from a straightforward presentation of Mr. Colby’s views and those with whom he agreed or disagreed to what appears to be the author’s own endorsement of one or another of those views. A careful reading of the sources cited on those few occasions suggests some (probably unintentional) selection bias.

But such minor flaws should not dissuade anyone interested in either political biographies and/or the recent history of America’s foreign policy from reading this very interesting and informative book.